Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 21
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36

North German Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand
Rec Dec 1997 (No. 1), Feb 1999, Musikhalle, Hamburg
RCA Red Seal 74321 66458 2 [59.04]
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Günter Wand, now in his eighties, is a conductor who is very much associated with the German classics, and these live recordings from Hamburg follow his previous Beethoven symphony performances on disc by ten years. The whole cycle of nine symphonies was recorded with this same orchestra - the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra - though the couplings were different. These earlier performances are still available at mid-price.

The best description of the First Symphony is surely that of Donald Tovey: 'a fitting farewell to the eighteenth century.' Beethoven was by 1800 an established figure in Viennese musical life, and he could confidently look to the future. His developing deafness had yet to overwhelm him, and therefore it is appropriate to judge this work as one which anticipates later masterpieces, while at the same time acknowledging its debt to tradition.

These things are well captured in this new live recording, which benefits from the excellent acoustic of the Musikhalle in Hamburg. In fact it is in this regard that the clearest improvement on the previous recordings can be discerned, since the point applies equally to the Symphony No. 2.

In both works the orchestral playing is exemplary, and there is a real sense of a special occasion: the return of a former principal conductor, a revered figure. As for the interpretations, its hard to find much that is different, and those who already have the previous issues will gain slightly better sound, but no more than that.

Tempi and balances are particularly well judged, and the music communicates its special qualities with a natural sense of flow. In Symphony No. 2 there is also an appropriate sense of power as the faster music builds in momentum. Although Wand is clearly an elder statesman of the musical world, there is nothing stately about his performances. The music is just as dynamic, just as lively, as Beethoven's earlier style demands. The mastery of transition is among his strengths as a conductor; listen, for example, to the relationships between slow introductions and succeeding Allegros, in the first movement of the Second Symphony, but also in the first movement and finale of the Symphony No. 1.

The catalogue contains sharper-edged performances of this repertoire, notably from period instrument ensembles, but for spontaneous, stylish music making with top class playing this is hard to beat.

Terry Barfoot

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